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Building bridges of understanding

Posted on November 13, 2016 | Comments

It’s time to get out the dictionary and check the definition of two words–tolerate and respect.

According to Webster’s, the word tolerate means “to accept or endure someone or something unpleasant or disliked with forbearance.” The definition of the word respect means to “have due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.”

If the words seem to be interchangeable to you, maybe the following story will help clarify the difference.

It was 2004 when a fellow co-worker and valued friend delivered an impassioned message during our weekly staff meeting at Orange County Human Relations Council. The mission of this organization is to “build bridges of understanding among all people.” Eli stood up and said this: “You tolerate the weather or a barking dog. Human beings are to be respected.”

An immigrant from Mexico, Eli learned English working at and later while managing a McDonald’s. He became a citizen and earned a master’s in Television and Film on a scholarship from Chapman University in Orange, CA. He has produced numerous videos combining effective humor with education about human rights. Yet, walking into many restaurants, he has often been told “they aren’t hiring.” That’s just one of many stories he has described to explain why he makes the distinction between tolerance and respect.

I’ve never forgotten Eli’s words.

They speak loudly to me when I hear folks from all professions and circumstances advocating that we be tolerant of each other. While I understand the intention, it falls short due to the judgmental tone of the definition. Some definitions even make reference to “putting up with.”

In the book, “Race Manners” author Bruce Jacobs’ premise is that “We should never let ourselves get away with simple tolerance. You don’t want to feel merely tolerated, and neither do others. Respect demands more. It demands an active role.”

The “active role,” for me, means we have to work at our relationships. Daily. Hourly if needed.

When I raised funding support for the programs and services at OC Human Relations, I learned that respect demands that we stop to confront our assumptions — assumptions that may be based on little (or no) information and stereotypes that are never challenged. The problem with uncontested assumptions is they can quickly create negative emotions that lead to damaging behavior.

Years ago I remember when Steven R. Covey promoted that we “Seek first to understand then to be understood.”

Being an action-oriented person, one of my favorite programs to better understand others offered by OC Human Relations was called Living Room Dialogues. Participants (12 – 15 per group) from diverse ethnicities, faith practices and sexual orientation were brought together at someone’s home. A moderator posed questions for each person to take turns answering. What people learned was how much more they had in common and became curious about their differences. The outcome of many groups resulted in a vast array of community service projects, some of which became the basis for a documentary film.

In this time of divergent and strong opinions on all sides of social and political issues, perhaps a little less tolerating and a little more work on seeking and building mutual respect can go a long way.








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  1. Right on. Never liked the name given to the Museum of Tolerance. I agree tolerance is the first step along the continuum of tolerating, respecting, and valuing, but can’t we aim a little higher than that?

    • I sure hope so. Intend to send this post to the nonprofit, Teaching Tolerance to advocate a name change.

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